We rode by easy stages all morning, following the river back to Schmeckle. The sun was warm and the air smelled sweet, or perhaps it just seemed so to me as I rode alongside my Anna. She seemed shy and uncertain of herself, quite different from her demeanor when we first met. I found her coyness charming and, without meaning to, I talked far too much about myself. In due course we arrived at the village. We stabled our horses with the blacksmith and, according to Brother Mattias’s plan (worked out with Brumm on the way while I was making a fool of myself) we went directly to the Mayor’s house. His housekeeper, an old woman with long, matted black hair streaked with white answered the door. She told us that the mayor was engaged and not receiving visitors. As she moved to close the door Brumm pushed past her with a gruff comment about overbearing servants and the rest of us followed.
We entered the sitting room and found the mayor staring out the window. When he turned to face us I was shocked at his appearance. He was a ruined man, haggard and unkempt. His red rimmed eyes were vacant, and he visibly flinched as his housekeeper entered the room and walked to his side. She turned to face us and the humble servant who had met us at the door transformed before our eyes into a vision of horror. Her twisted visage was terrifying, and I felt my blood freeze as she surveyed our little group contemptuously. Smiling and pointing a long clawed finger at the mayor, she said sweetly “He belongs to me”.
The hunters confront the witch
“Good morning, Emma” said Mattias, although not as confidently as was his manner.
“I will eat your soul, holy man” said the witch “but not too soon. First you will watch your friends die.” She turned her gaze on Anna, grinning malevolently, rolled her eyes back in her head and started to chant “By Oak and Ash and Thorn I command thee…”
I wanted to run to Anna, to protect her with my life, if need be, but my legs wouldn’t answer. I looked back at my love and the first thing I saw was her face. She was pleading with the monster with her eyes. Then I saw the pistol in her shaking hand, pointed directly at me.
Mad Emma was laughing, but the sound was without mirth, conveying only malice. “Ah, true love!” she sneered. “Make your lover a gift, my dear!” At this, Anna’s expression changed from one of fear to profound sorrow. Slowly, she turned the pistol and placed the muzzle against her own breast. “You will not!” shrieked Emma “You will obey me!” and the sound of her voice unmanned me. The report of the pistol echoed off the walls of the small room and Anna was thrown back and dropped to the floor.
I awoke in my bed at the inn with Brumm by my side. “He’s awake!” he shouted, and a moment later Mattias and the landlord crowded in. “God be praised” said the Brother. We thought you weren’t coming back. The side of my face, my shoulder and chest were heavily bandaged and burned marvelously.
“Anna?” I said.
“I’m sorry, Heinrich” said Mattias, taking my hand “she is safe in God’s care now.”
I felt overwhelmed with sorrow, and for a time I could not trust myself to speak. Brumm and the landlord left Mattias and me alone. At last I was able to ask what had happened.
“When……when Anna fell you turned on the witch. She began to laugh, a horrid sound, but the sound died in her mouth when you drew your long knife and threw yourself across the room upon her. The struggle lasted but a moment and was terrible. She tried to tear the flesh from your bones but your knife was at her throat. You took off her head, and a bloody mess you made of it. As it came away and her black soul left her body there was a blinding flash and the room was filled with a terrible smell. The Devil claiming his own, I suppose. We brought you back here to care for your wounds, but we didn’t think you would make it. You have been asleep these two days past. “
I remained abed for three more days regaining my strength and mourning for what I had lost. Mattias stayed by my side, talking incessantly and bringing me back little by little. Farmer Brumm came by each day to check on my progress, but he was quite busy setting right the damage that had been done to the community, as far as he was able. The mayor was a broken man and would, in all likelihood, never recover. The village elders chose Brumm to replace him. They could not have chosen better than that brave, honest fellow. Brother Mattias rode part of the way with me on the road to Ardoberg. At last our roads parted as he had to return to Rome to report on the business in Holstein. He was hoping for a holiday of his own in that city before another assignment came his way. It seems there is a wealthy widow of middle years there who is quite fond of him. I asked, smiling, how that squared with his vow of celibacy and he replied that it was not so much a vow as a guideline, or recommendation, as it were. We wished each other good health and parted ways. I hope we shall meet again.
I resumed my position in Ardoberg and excused myself to my superiors for returning so late. An unfortunate accident and a slow recovery, I explained. I couldn’t very well tell them the truth. For a man of my years to be going off on an adventure would be seen as evidence of ….unpredictability unbecoming of a Civil Servant. I think often of my time there, and I wonder if I will ever regain that feeling of dull contentment that used to define me.
Notes: This was an actual game that Mike and I played. The concept was to recreate a classic horror movie type situation with Mike and me as the heroes, hunting down the evil witch. The concept came from a great board game called A Touch of Evil, which I got for Christmas. We set the 16’x6’ gaming table with a village in the middle and mysterious locations in the four corners to be investigated. The miniature rules used were Chaos in Carpathia, and we had homemade campaign rules based on the board game to drive the action between confrontations. As luck would have it the witch dragged the town down into darkness before we could find her in the game, but that wouldn’t have made a very good story so I changed a bunch of stuff to make it more entertaining. Hooray for Hollywood!